Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ethnic Studies: Some Thoughts From Behind the Academic Curtain

For the past six years, I have been the Director of Ethnic Studies at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  After this semester, I will be able to return full-time to a life of research, writing, and teaching.  Since 2008, I have had the challenge of balancing teaching, researching, and writing along with leading an Institute that houses three programs (African American and African Studies, U.S. Latina/Latino and Latin American Studies, and Native American Studies) with twenty-one faculty who are appointed in Ethnic Studies and also in what’s called a “home” department (example would be 60% in English and 40% in Ethnic Studies).  The twenty-one faculty in our Institute represent seven departments in the college.

Life in administration is complex.  On the one hand, you become aware (and fascinated and/or appalled) by the workings of the university and the college.  You get to go “behind the curtain” and observe/witness the many issues occurring on a daily basis. You also become more aware of cultural, racial, sexual, gendered, class differences in either subtle or overt ways. You also notice how individuals cross those lines respectfully or not. 

The first time I walked into a Dean’s meeting with all the Chairs and Directors, I was struck by the majority of white men.  The Dean and Associate Deans also were primarily white and male.  Today, there is not much improvement and people of color are vastly under represented in these ranks. Because of this under representation, the few who are “of color,” “female,” “queer,” “come from working class backgrounds,” may easily feel isolated because the “majority” often do not understand how a person’s background and identity play into discussions and perspectives. The unwritten expectation is that the individual must fit into the majority code of conduct.  These points of “diversity” make for interesting moments of tension. 

Here are some examples:  The person of color “chair” who talks with her hands, who is loud, who needs to make her point with a lengthy narrative, is shunned because she refuses to (1) remain quiet (2) negotiate the way “they” discuss.  And how do “they” discuss?  The term “presenting your point elegantly,” is code for speaking in a linear and minimalist narrative. Do not reveal your emotions.  Keep your hands by your sides or on your lap. I have also unfortunately seen the following too many times.  A person of color will be speaking and after she (it’s more often a woman) makes her case, a white person will then say to the group:  “So let me explain to everyone what you were trying to say here..." Agency is taken away over and over again.  The individual can reply with this possible example:  “What I said does not need any further explanation, and if any of you are not clear, please ask me.” 

In the book, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, Margalynne J. Armstrong and Stephanie M. Wildman discuss using “Color Insight” to help individuals see each other instead of seeing the stereotype.  “Color Insight” dismantles the idea of “Color Blindness” by focusing on each person’s background and perspective. They write: 

One step to develop color insight is for the parties in the conversation to reflect upon and discuss whether their understanding of race has changed over their lifetimes.  Race is a moving target that evolves and is rarely static ... 

Eliminating the operation of the presumption of incompetence in academic institutions requires individual and institutional good faith.  A first step is to reflect on past incidents where women or people of color have been subjected to a presumption of incompetence.  Consider times when candidates or new teachers have inexplicably struggled at the outset in your school or other workplace.  Were these colleagues accorded a presumption fo competence?  Individuals must honestly assess their own attitudes and perceptions.  Ask yourself these questions:  Have you ever applied a presumption of incompetence to a member of some group?  Reflect on your role in faculty decisions about tenure or hiring.  Have you been willing to point out the operation of privilege (for example, when a colleague makes a statement such as “all it takes to be a good teacher is preparation and hard work”)? 

Margalynne J. Armstrong
Institutional good faith requires a diverse faculty and administration as well as an honest and respectful environment in which people of different races, genders, sexual orientation, and politics can disagree without fear of reprisal.  Individual and institutional good faith promotes the ability to work across racial lines that is necessary to challenge the presumption of incompetence.  To work across racial lines requires recognizing that in the United States, people continue to face racialization in many aspects of their lives.  An individual’s racial identity or perceived one affects that person’s experience and social interactions.  In its aspiration to achieve a color-blind society, contemporary culture downplays or even denies this racialized reality. But acknowledging a racialized reality and its impact on perception and reaction is an important element of transracial cooperation.  (233-4)
Stephanie M. Wildman
This is key to creating a more equitable community among faculty and administration.  If we are not modeling “color insight” (instead of “color blindness”), we are not providing our students with the tools the will need to negotiate a diverse transnational world in which they seek to work. 

Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo discusses the importance of Ethnic Studies.  She writes: 
Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo
[E]thnic Studies is different from disciplines like sociology, political science, and anthropology, which tend to hide behind the curtain of scientific objectivity and present issues by discussing numbers and an array of calculated theories designed to provide some explanation for the numbers.  In fact, listening to my colleagues and friends in those disciplines discuss their student evaluations, it appears that if professors in any of these (and related) disciplines try to move beyond mere presentation of facts, they are told to “shut up and teach.”  Because of its transdisciplinary methodology, ethnic studies is not a shut-up-and-teach kind of discipline.  Ethnic studies does not hide behind the veil of objectivity, and in fact, to be effective, it has to advocate and strive for a fundamental transformation of race relations.  Stating that there is inequality is not enough.  And here is where I come in:  I am a Latina telling my mostly white students that racism, discrimination, and inequality still exist and affect all our lives (theirs included), both in ways that can be measured and ones that cannot.  I also tell them that they are implicated in those things, that they must do something about them, and that their comforts come at the expense of others.  And, of course, they do not want to hear that.  Especially not from me.

I can relate to what Professor Lugo-Lugo describes in her classroom.  However, imagine trying to explain these concepts to other administrators and faculty—to ask them to consider their own implications, and further—to request that they do something about this so that they will consider “color insight” best practices at the level of faculty reappointments and tenure reviews.  Like Professor Lugo-Lugo’s students, many do not want to hear it.  They want to hold fast to their numerical metric systems of evaluations because no explanations are needed, no room for discussion, it is easy. 

It has been an interesting kind of education—looking behind the administrative curtain and seeing what occurs at these levels.  We have a long way to go.  A few days ago on Facebook, someone posted a message about deciding against graduate school because of hearing horrible stories of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. in academia.  This individual had seen his academic friends become isolated and quite demoralized. I can understand, at the same time that I feel we must be here, we must be present, we must stand up and be counted.  We must do the work while also supporting each other.  We have to learn to take care of ourselves within academia while we do the work.  I have a colleague who is also my gym buddy. We make sure we get to the gym and we make sure we talk through our own research work, our difficult and stressful moments. Having supportive friends and partners is key because academia is not going to change overnight.  A strong support system makes a big difference. 

I always want to encourage our Chicana and Chicano students to consider graduate school, to consider an academic career even though at this time we are continuing to experience financial constraints.  We still need to be here to then contribute to budget discussions in order to keep our ethnic studies programs and departments vibrant and growing.  There are important organizations to help graduate students stay on track and focused: 

1. National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS)
2. Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (MALCS)
3. Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa (SSGA)
4. The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)
5. American Studies Association (ASA)


Dr. Irene Blea said...

Thank you for this article. I taught Chicano Studies for 27 years. It was a struggle to keep the departments funded, but the students were great. Again, Thank you.

Dr. Irene Blea said...

Thank you for this article. I taught Chicano Studies and wrote textbooks for 27 years. It was a struggle to keep the departments funded, but the students were great. Visit my on Facebook. Again, Thank you.